|Scene from Spider-Man 2|
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way.
Subject: Thursday was National Superhero Day
Theory: Spider-Man 2 is the best superhero movie.
With this being one of the in-between weeks where there's no significant new release or news to base an opinion piece on, I apologize for picking something that may seem at worse a little contrived. Considering that I am by no means a superhero movie expert, nor am I enthusiastic enough to properly dissect these films, my opinion on the subject is generally relegated to literally what sticks. While I can argue that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is full of redundancy to the point it ruins their other movies, I try to go in with an open mind to each and attempt to like them just the same. For what it's worth, I *like* a lot of recent flicks of the sort, including the hit-and-miss The Avengers: Age of Ultron and the grindhouse-like appeal of Deadpool. However, I would be hard pressed to honestly tell you if any of them are ones that I REALLY like. For the sake of brevity, I am specifically talking as to ones that I would fondly bring up in conversation along with my other favorite movies.
Which got me thinking: which one of these superhero movies is actually reflective of the genre's pinnacle? As I began to run through a list, I realized that I frankly *like* more of these movies than REALLY like. To give a rundown of other films that I would recommend on sheer entertainment level, I would go with The Dark Knight, The Avengers (2012), Superman (1978), and the two Hellboy films. There are others that I wouldn't be offended if you included, but mind you that I am coming from a casual standpoint and I don't care about comic book accuracy. I merely care as to whether they are entertaining or tell a story that I like. With all of this said, I think that my answer if I had to give a pick for favorite superhero movie, it would likely have to be director Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2.
I know that in 2016, this seems like a bold move given the outcry of enthusiasm surrounding The Dark Knight. I get it. I love the film as well and recognize its influence on modern cinema. However, there's a part of me that's also taken aback by how the dark and brooding tone has improperly become the norm for every film that's followed. One could easily see how Christopher Nolan's moral complexity paved the way for the less even films of Zack Snyder with Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman. Even then, seeing trailers for X-Men: Apocalypse and Captain America: Civil War look to be embracing a sad point in comic book movies where everyone must fight each other to the death. I know that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is usually jollier than this, but you can't help but feel like these movies are being geared towards manic depressives. In that sense, I probably am unfairly nostalgic for a happier and simpler time.
Around the turn of the millennium, comic book movies got their first major adrenaline push. While the genre was slowly giving us those movies (mostly related to Batman), there was a one-two punch of X-Men and Spider-Man that ushered in the start of a new model. These were no longer studios trying to understand comic book culture. This was studios making movies that hit the zeitgeist with directors who knew how to reverently treat the source material. They were riveting films and the special effects were finally catching up with the content. It was fun to see supernatural figures fight each other for justice. It's also important to note that in 2002, Spider-Man's origin story wasn't done to death, making Raimi's first entry highly enjoyable and immediately iconic with help from a spry Toby Maguire performance. While it looks sorta dated, there's no denying that the story had the appeal with a third act conflict that still feels vital. Maybe it's because by then there wasn't a formula for these movies. However, it is also because Raimi - who wanted to make a superhero film for close to a decade - was passionate and had the kinetic energy to pull something off that actually felt fun.
The sequel was met with the familiar anticipation, and it easily excelled above it. Spider-Man 2 was a movie that embraced its energy so openly that Roger Ebert's opening line of his 4 out of 4 star review was "Now that's what I call a superhero movie." The pieces were all there. Maguire's chemistry with Kirsten Dunst by that point was at its peak. The film even had one of the quintessential supervillain performances in Alfred Molina's Doctor Octopus; a scientist who Maguire's Peter Parker befriends, but becomes overwhelmed with power as his studies become more challenging. It is the perfect set-up with former partners now battling each other for control. The action sequences are so well orchestrated that moments of peril reveal just how integral Spider-Man is. In a time where Batman v. Superman sees heroes fight each other and save no one, it's baffling to think that these heroes once did their job so well that it made for breathtaking cinema.
Where Raimi's work could easily get by on action beats and witty one-liners, the story was far more complex than a petty fight between rivals. Parker was facing his own series of conflicts that included losing Dunst's Mary Jane due to his consistent busy nature. He also had an aging family that needed his help. Parker is such a realized character that you understand how difficult it must be for him to tear off from his personal life to save a random citizen's day. There's plenty of brooding, but it is balanced with action and humor. Still, Raimi's approach to the script shares more with the classic drama formula than it does to comic books. Some could argue that this makes for an inaccurate Spider-Man portrayal, but it also elevates the material into its cinematic potential. As fun as the Marvel Cinematic Universe can be, it rarely feels like it has emotional depths due to how broad most of their characters inevitably feel after two hours. You care about the action and the personality, but not quite the individual himself. Spider-Man and its sequel thankfully don't fall into this trap.
It also helps that Spider-Man 2 isn't just a retread of the first. It builds upon ideas set in motion, but rarely feels like it needs a thesaurus to understand what's going on. It's a comic book movie that actually appeals to mainstream audiences on an enjoyment level. It also helps that among Parker's conflicts is that he loses his powers and must contemplate giving up his job. It is only at this point that the real value of superheroes become apparent, and the admirable quest to go back makes the character more noble. By the time that Spider-Man is stopping a runaway train in the film's most iconic scene, there's so much at stake that this feels not like a selfless act, but like an allegory for society working together. When Parker is revealed due to his suit being torn beyond recognition, there's no cynical desire to rat him out. They promise to keep his identity a secret because it will do everyone a better service.
The one thing that cannot be underestimated is Molina's performance. While the film has humor, Doctor Octopus' portrayal is rarely campy. He is a supervillain with desires and personal dreams that are just as fleshed out as Parker's. His are merely resulting in a tragic conclusion. Whereas the two films bookending Raimi's time with Spider-Man focus on the Osborne family, this one focuses more on Parker's quest to become a respected member of society. Likewise, Doctor Octopus wants to be accepted as a scientist. He just happens to be mad with power. Molina gives a nuanced performance, and one that is a lot richer than any performance even in Raimi's superhero canon. It is so charismatic without being too hostile or displeasing. It is confident enough to embrace comic book attitudes without being isolating. It's a role that, along with J.K. Simmons' phenomenal Jay Jonah Jameson, feels like comic books come to life in the best ways possible.
The film's legacy is likely undermined by a series of Spider-Man things to follow. Spider-Man 3 unfortunately was too much of a good thing, and the rebooted series as The Amazing Spider-Man only made the character more reviled. With Captain America: Civil War and a promised Spider-Man reboot yet again, it is ridiculous to note how many ways this character has been stretched in 15 years. While I hold judgment as to whether the new take is good until I see it, I still maintain that Spider-Man 2 was the last time that the character appeared in a genuinely great movie. The others have their moments, but there's something immediate and assured about this sequel that is unsurpassed. It could just be that the casting was spot on. It could just be that the story relied more on classic cinema than a comic book formula. Whatever the cause, it still feels tragic that films of this ilk on a budget like this cannot be made nowadays.
It also doesn't help that The Dark Knight revolutionized cinema to embrace more of a dour tone. In that film, character Harvey Dent says "You either die a hero, or live long enough to become the bad guy." Sadly, it's the model by which superhero cinema seems to go. There's no room for Parker to merely be a conflicted individual. He has to be a failure in order for us to feel peril. While Nolan's trilogy explores this in far more compelling ways than any other film, it does still make you long for when things were happier. True, other Marvel movies circa 2008 weren't necessarily as formed or as good yet. Films like Fantastic Four and Ghost Rider were scoffed at. Yet the one thing that is misunderstood is that when they were on, they were just enjoyable. While Marvel Cinematic Universe still can be that, there's a certain familiarity that takes away the fun. There's nothing as "unconventional" and more reliant on classic cinema quite like Spider-Man 2 in the modern superhero release schedule.
If it sounds like a series of gripes and bad nostalgia for old superhero movies, just know that I could make this conversation for recent films like The Dark Knight and The Avengers. I think that they're all enjoyable to varying degrees and they continue to be. It's just that when a franchise releases Deadpool and it becomes a hit for pointing out the flaws of its own franchise, it reflects a lack of growth. If Spider-Man 2 has any leg over recent films, it's that it doesn't have to follow a formula to be good. It just has to tell a compelling story with rich characters. In that sense, few comic book adaptations since have gotten it quite as right.